In Inside Out, Pixar’s latest effort (and its best since Toy Story 3), writer-director Pete Docter wonders what those little voices in our head look like. More importantly, he wonders what they do. The film supposes that as we grow, so too do our emotions evolve. They may be as hesitant about change as we are, and sometimes they lose control when we need them most; but they remain an inextricable, unique part of our being.
By crafting a vibrant inner-world to off-set the all-too-realistic urban malaise of the outer, the marvelous Inside Out works on multiple levels: as an often hilarious and highly emotional journey for a set of emotions personified, and as a relatable, melancholy coming-of-age narrative for Riley, the girl whose mind we come to know intimately.
Even at its most hi-jink-filled—and the film does verge into hokey, jokey territory—Inside Out maintains a soulful, mature core energy, as Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), by way of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), learns that all emotions are valid, purposeful, and necessary.
Things get going when 11-year-old Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) make the big move from rural Minnesota to San Francisco, CA. Gone are the snowy winters and ice hockey adventures Riley has always known, and her emotions are equally thrown out of whack. Joy has always been in command, seeing Riley through all of her highest highs; as of yet, Sadness, Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader), have had little input in her life. But with dad’s new job taking up more of his time, a new school on the horizon, and mom’s insistent praise for being “such a happy girl,” Riley’s equilibrium is at a tipping point.
When she breaks down in front of her classmates while talking about Minnesota, a sad “core memory”—the biggest moments in the young girl’s life—is generated for the first time. Joy, freaked out by this unknown, attempts to dislodge the blue, marble-like memory from all of Riley’s other happy yellow ones. Predictably, something goes awry, and she and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters and into the vast expanse of Riley’s mind.
I won’t do you the disservice of explaining much more by way of plot, but with Fear, Anger, and Disgust at the reins of Riley’s control panel for the first time, it is obvious that things will go from bad to worse.
The mid-section of the film, as I briefly described earlier, is weighed down by an almost incessant, insatiable need to get laughs. Some are earned, especially in the banter between the morose Sadness and chipper Joy, while others feel like cheap thrills.
As the two attempt to journey back to Headquarters, sojourns into Imagination Land and Dream Productions (a movie studio-like set-up) feel juvenile somehow. They left me wondering why Riley, given the experiences she is having in real life, would ever have a french fry forest or rainbow unicorn on her mind. More realistic, and used to hilarious effect, is the machine that creates copy upon copy of her “perfect boyfriend,” a mopey, stoner-type who repeats “I’d die for you Riley!” over and over.
Whether this humorous, joke-a-second terrain is a fault of the film or my own experience of it is murky for me—it has been a while since I’ve been 11. But when a movie delves so deep into the psyche of an 11-year-old—her dissatisfaction with her parents, her honest anger and loneliness—the more cartoonish moments stand out as somehow less impactful. They feel like a bridge between the emotional beats rather than meaningful experiences for the characters involved.
That being said, the excellent voice acting and writing—and it must be noted that the jokes never devolve into crudeness or rely on kinetic action—ensures that the somewhat lesser moments always pays off in full. Poehler is an absolute delight as Joy; at the post-screening talkback, Docter talked about how he could feel the intelligence oozing off of her. She maneuvers a character who could be frustratingly, cluelessly, endlessly happy in delivery into more nuanced territory, and when she finally understands the depth of her plight, her sadness is expertly conveyed.
Kudos also to Phyllis Smith, playing a more child-friendly version of her clueless, slightly off-kilter Office character. There is an honest melancholy to her Sadness, but also a good-natured, preternatural understanding of her importance. She, along with the less fleshed-out but equally fun other emotions, make the most of playing their “type” while still etching in shades of humanity. Anger may be angry all the time, and Fear may be afraid, but it is all in service of young Riley, the human they are charged with steering and protecting. That mission and its surprising depth is never lost on the voice actors.
The best scenes in the film—save for Joy and Sadness’s back and forth, and a key moment involving Riley’s former imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind)—showcase the interplay between Riley’s real life and the emotions’ control over it. Whether grimacing at pizza with broccoli on top or giving her father a withering look, the experience of riding the emotional wave with Riley is an exhilarating one, generating the most honest humor and creative energy in the film while also making bold statements about the way all humans process and understand their lives.
At the film’s climax, that experiential interplay takes a hugely satisfying, emotionally cathartic turn. Both the emotions and Riley undergo a massive shift, and because we’ve been so in tune with her inner-workings, it just makes sense. Anyone who has undergone major transition of any kind—even those that come in the wild throes of puberty—will relate to the message that Inside Out conveys so beautifully. Oh, and I dare you not to cry…
Ultimately, Inside Out suggests that each of us is uniquely beautiful, and that our emotions (every person’s look slightly different, as shown in the film) shift and change overtime. It shows that we are held together by a complex system that is huge and unknowable, but that nonetheless works together to achieve the greatness that is human experience.
If that’s not a grand idea, and one that could not have been tackled by anyone but Pixar in any medium but animation, then I’ll be damned. This, folks, is audacious, essential viewing.
Stay tuned for a piece about the magic of Pixar—and my personal rankings of their films! And for now, check out the trailer for Inside Out below (I can’t even watch it without welling up now).